If you're around the same age as me (I'll be 37 this year) you'll remember Rubik's Cube. It became massively popular in the early 1980's and you probably owned one when you were somewhere between 10 and 14 years old. I did. And I remember playing with it for hours at a time in my bedroom (at least that's my story and I'm sticking to it). Like anyone else who fiddled with it (the cube that is), I was trying to figure out how on earth you were supposed to get each of the six sides of the cube to be made up of a single colour! It seemed impossible. In fact, as far as I was concerned it was. Until I bought a book.
It was called something like How to Solve the Rubik's Cube and it explained how to, well, solve the Rubik's Cube (thereby justifying its title) by taking you through the different combinations of turns of each face of the cube you would need to do in order to solve it. It was complicated stuff and so you needed a heck of a lot of patience to follow the guide and solve the cube (or more accurately you needed to be in desperate need of a social life). Luckily for me, I had zero social life and patience is my middle name (it's actually David but I'm making a point here). So while my peers were out chasing girls, I was spending much of my precious time engaged in 'cubing'. And it was time well spent, as it wasn't long before I was able to solve the cube! Okay, it may have taken me a couple of weeks, but I had done it. And sure, I had needed the help of a book to achieve it, but nevertheless I had solved the Rubik's Cube! Friends of mine may well have been out losing their virginity, but I had found a way to make each side of a coloured plastic toy consist of all one colour. Do we need to ask which is more important?
With practice, I was able to reduce the time it took me to solve the cube. The second time I completed the cube it took me just a few hours. The third time I managed to solve it in less than an hour. Impressive, eh? With each attempt, the time it took to solve the cube got shorter and shorter. It wasn't long before I could solve it in less than 10 minutes and then in less than 5 minutes! My eventual record was 1 minute 22 seconds! (In fact I have a memory that on one occasion, while watching Blockbusters, I completed the cube in a fraction of a second under a minute but on the very final turn of the cube, a cheap imitation cube and not a "real" Rubik's Cube, the whole thing just fell apart).
I hear you asking: So what? What is so interesting about the fact that I, like thousands or possibly millions of other youngsters at that time, spent an unhealthy proportion of my teens playing with a Rubik's Cube? It's a good question, which is why I'm glad you asked it. And if I'm honest I'm not sure I know the answer. If nothing else, it's just a bit of nostalgia. And a bit of nostalgia never did anyone any harm.
The nostalgia was brought back with full force when I unwrapped a Christmas present from my sister last year. It was a Rubik's Cube. A real Rubik's Cube, not a cheap imitation one, but a real one! As I removed it from its packaging, I was amazed at how the mere feel of the cube took me back more than 20 years as I remembered how it felt to hold a cube back then. It was a strange sensation. As I started to slowly turn the faces of the cube, it triggered some long "forgotten" memories of having done this as a teenager. Within minutes I found myself remembering some fairly simple moves to complete the top layer of the cube (i.e., making one side a block of one colour, with the top layer of the four surrounding sides also in place). I impressed myself! What's more, without really thinking about what I was doing, a few turns later I had completed the second layer. The final layer was the hardest, because the aim is to get the remaining few pieces into place without displacing the pieces on the first and second layer that are already in place. But again, I soon found myself almost unconsciously remembering the moves that were required to solve the last parts of the puzzle. Within a matter of hours of picking up the cube for the first time in over 20 years, I had solved it! I was amazed (as I can tell you are). I was amazed that this information (and let's face it, fairly useless information) had somehow been tucked away in my brain all this time so that 20 odd years later I was able to retrieve it so readily. It just goes to show how much information seems to be stored in this big lump of goo in our head (please stop me if I'm getting too technical by the way).
I still sense you're sitting there (or standing, but probably sitting) thinking... "And? So? Your point is?!". Do I have a point? I guess the point is that I think we typically underestimate how much information or knowledge we hold on to in our brains without even knowing about it. Even though we don't realise it, things we may have done as a child are still stored away and you may be surprised how much you remember when something triggers that childhood memory. And who knows, maybe the Rubik's Cube is in some weird way symbolic of life itself. A puzzle to solve. 42 million combinations, but only one solution. Or maybe it's just a toy.
On this last note, I am reminded of the trendy vicar types who used to, and maybe still do, appear on Radio 4's Thought For The Day and might talk as I have about Rubik's Cubes thinking these are still a part of popular culture. And then, in a desperate attempt to crowbar God into things, might say something like, "...and, you know, in a funny sort of way Jesus is like a Rubik's Cube, isn't he?". Nice try vicar. But let's face it, He isn't.